03/13/2012 03:03 EDT | Updated 05/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Sodium campaign not worth its salt? Study uncertain on change in eating habits

OTTAWA - An ad blitz to get people to reduce the salt in their diets may not have had much impact.

A government study couldn't tell whether the "Give Your Head a Shake" campaign changed any eating habits in a test case in eastern Ontario.

Local health centres in the Champlain region kicked off a campaign in August 2009 to try to persuade people in the area to consume less sodium. The federal government spent $194,000 to evaluate the results of that campaign.

The study looked at two groups of adults between the ages of 35 and 50. The Champlain group was exposed to the sodium campaign and a control group in a different town was not.

The "Give Your Head a Shake" campaign consisted of newspaper, television and radio ads. Registered dieticians also came up with dozens of "quick and easy" tips to reduce sodium, such as mixing olive oil, lemon juice and herbs instead of using bottled marinades, or adding your own seasoning to chicken.

At one point, researchers checked with the groups to see whether they had changed their diets in the last 30 days. They wanted to know if people had been sprinkling less salt on their food, or if they had even gone a step further and cut some sodium from their diets.

The people in the Champlain group reported adding less salt to their food in the previous month, while the control group did not.

But when it came to actually reducing sodium, neither group changed their eating habits in a meaningful way.

"There were no significant differences documented for participants reporting they reduced the amount of sodium they ate in the past 30 days," the study says.

The Canadian Press obtained the sodium report under the Access to Information Act.

A summary of the first year of the campaign found the Champlain study group seemed to be eating less salt. But it suggests people in Champlain who were not part of the study, but who were nonetheless exposed to the same ad blitz, did not change their eating habits.

"At the community level, there are no differences between the intervention and control community," the study concludes.

"Given campaign awareness is reported among 30 per cent of survey respondents, it is possible that additional exposure to campaign messages would lead to community-level changes.

"It is not however possible to say with certainty that the observed differences in the Champlain region are a result of the campaign versus other factors."

The Public Health Agency of Canada said the government did not fund the campaign.

"It should also be noted that the findings from this study are preliminary given the study's small geographic area and volunteer participants," spokeswoman Sylwia Gomes said in an email.

"The campaign evaluation provides new information on consumer awareness, knowledge, and behaviours related to sodium consumption among a sample of Canadians, as well as data regarding the impact of a large-scale evidence-based public education campaign targeting sodium reduction in Canada.

"The objective is to use the results of this evaluation to better inform future initiatives aimed at reducing sodium consumption."

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq appeared at a parliamentary committee on Tuesday and spoke generally about sodium, although she was not asked specifically about the eastern Ontario test case. She appeared to rule out regulations on food ingredients, such as sodium.

The federal government's so-called sodium-reduction strategy calls on manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily cut sodium levels in their products.

The minister said regulating ingredients one by one is the wrong approach.

"Trans fat, salt, sugar, whatnot. We need to look at a broader strategy in keeping (the) population healthy in Canada."

The average Canadian consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, a figure the federal government would like to see lowered to 2,300 milligrams by 2016.